High water: Metro Detroit communities prepare for record-high water levels this spring

In an average year, Michigan gets about 31.5 inches of rain. But 2019 wasn’t an average year — more than 41.5 inches came down and wreaked havoc across the state.


People in southeast Michigan felt the effects of that severe rainfall last year and again in January 2020, from high water levels in lakes and rivers to roads eroding and flooding neighborhoods.


“This is kind of how climate change is going to affect our area here — we’re going to have more of these kinds of fast-traveling, small, but very intense storms that that can bring just a staggering amount of water to a very small area quickly,” says Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash.


Last year was the wettest 12 months on record in the Great Lakes Basin, says Lauren Fry, a hydrologist with the Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District.


“When you look at Lake Michigan and Huron in the spring of last year, we had a really significant rise ... and then this past fall and early winter, we saw less than usual seasonal declines” in water levels. Usually, lake levels decline about 12 inches in a season, but they declined only about 5 inches, she says. “We’re expecting water levels to continue to be very high.”


And heavy rains are likely to strike again this spring and summer. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasts call for similarly high lake levels in 2020.


Here's how community leaders from across the region are coping with this new wet reality.


Jefferson Chalmers


In Detroit, two neighborhoods had serious flooding last summer: Jefferson Chalmers and Jefferson Village, where homes line canals.


“The seawalls of some private property were not high enough, and some of them were in less-than-desirable condition,” says City of Detroit Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry. Water spilled over the top of some seawalls — Berry estimates that this happened in one out of every five yards — and flooded the neighborhood.

In the past, residents had no urgent need to repair the seawalls, because the water hadn’t been as high, Berry says, adding, “It wasn’t that long ago that they were dredging the canals because the water levels were too low.”


The city and the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a major sandbagging operation to fill the gaps in the seawalls. And it worked: The fixes have withstood the rainfall since, including the heavy rains in January, Berry says.


Since last summer, “We have seen a lot of homes make changes to their seawall infrastructure, either by raising it, shoring it up, or replacing it,” says Krystle Walker, emergency management specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Jefferson Chalmers experienced heavy flooding last year after record high water levels.


Lake St. Clair

“Lake St. Clair set a record level starting in May and set a new record every month through September,” says Brandon Lewis, director of Macomb County Emergency Management & Communications.


Macomb County’s biggest water-related problems have been along the shoreline, he says, with water topping over seawalls and flooding roads and yards.


Away from the lake, “we’ve had some significant issues along our drains and rivers in the county,” Lewis says, particularly during the heavy rain in January.


“Because of the rain and moisture pattern in the last couple of years, the ground in this area is completely saturated — and it’s frozen. And at this point, it can’t absorb water, so that water needs a place to go. And it’s migrating toward our drains and trying to get out to the lake,” he explains.


When rains hit in January, drains were running at very high levels for a few days, and so was the Clinton River, which caused inland flooding along those drains and rivers, according to Lewis.


Since May 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District has been assisting communities across the Detroit and Port Huron areas. They are currently providing support to Wayne, Macomb, St. Clair, and Monroe counties.


The Corps provides both technical assistance and direct assistance. With technical assistance, “we partner with another government entity, typically a county, and they provide us an overview of their problematic sites. And we’re able to go out, conduct site assessments, and give advice on temporary flood protection measures,” says Krystle Walker, emergency management specialist. This includes training people on sandbagging and overseeing sandbagging efforts.


Direct assistance includes providing supplies, like various types of sandbags and poly sheeting, to fight flooding of critical public infrastructure. St. Clair County is one of two counties in Michigan that has been approved for direct assistance, Walker says.


Erosion is also causing damage to shoreline properties.


“Typically, what we see is the water being higher and concentrating normal wave energy in new areas. So we’re seeing roads that are being eaten away, yards that are being eaten away, dock infrastructure that’s damaged—those kinds of issues,” Walker explains.


Bluewater underwater


Part of the St. Clair Flats in the Blue Water area, Clay Township has been hit especially hard. Yards and homes flooded. Several roads and about a dozen fire hydrants were completely submerged. Water infiltrated into the sewer system. The ferry dock on Harsens Island, which had been raised up because the water level was so high, collapsed when the ferry malfunctioned and hit it.


All these problems required significant expense and effort to make infrastructure and property usable. With some of the roads, for example, the township had to plug stormwater drains and install pumps to pump the water out, just to keep them dry and passable. Other roads had to be built up with gravel to get them above the water — and the roads that have deteriorated under these conditions will need to be fixed. “It’s just been a challenge all the way around,” says Clay Township Supervisor Artie Bryson.


Last year, the township gave out 600,000 sandbags, Bryson says. But compounding the problem along the waterfront is that the wake from boats pushes over the sandbags that people labor to put in place.


“If you spend a week or two weeks sandbagging to help save your property, and one boat comes by, it washes it all away,” he says. Then, “what we have is waves going up on people’s lawns and sometimes lapping against their homes.”


Bryson recently testified in the State Senate regarding the bill HB 5401/5402, which would put a “no wake” rule in place during periods of high water.


Bryson says 65 percent of the township’s homeowners have been directly affected by high water.


Looking ahead


“One of the biggest challenges that I see is that we’re not sure when this event will end,” Walker says. “Typically, when you have an emergency event, it is very discrete—you have a storm come through, nice weather comes in behind it, and you’re able to really recover at some point.”


But it’s uncertain how long the lakes will stay high. And that “feeds into the decisions that need to be made by each individual home and business owner,” says Walker.


Lewis says that in Macomb County, along with immediate assistance, they are working with communities “to discuss other hazard mitigation projects like zoning changes that might change the way you do construction within a flood zone.”


Drainage systems are designed to accommodate a certain amount of water, and if they are overloaded, some of those systems are designed to discharge treated or partially treated water, Lewis explains.


That’s what happened when a retention basin in Warren discharged partially treated water in January, for example. The system performed as intended, but the Macomb County Public Works Commissioner has been pushing to expand the basin’s capacity.


Berry says that, in Detroit, “our sense of urgency really came into play with the amount of water that was coming and flooding and actually going into the sewage system.” The pumps were working as they were supposed to, but “what happens if one of these pumps burn out because of processing so much water? The result would be a catastrophic thing for not just the City of Detroit but across southeast Michigan,” he says.


So the city has applied for Advance Measures under the Army Corps of Engineers, for help with temporary solutions that are cost-effective. “We have also contracted our own engineering study to evaluate an intermediate fix, Berry says.

In February, state, federal, and local officials attended the Michigan High Water Coordinating Summit, convened by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and pledged to collaborate and share resources. Participants are forming a multi-agency Michigan High Water Action Team that will identify assets that can be marshaled in response to high water and coordinate communications to keep residents informed. Townhall meetings will also be held around the state this spring.


Whitmer’s 2021 budget includes $40 million for local climate-resilient infrastructure grants, “to help plan for and prevent the negative impacts of Michigan’s changing climate conditions like high water levels.”


Some municipalities are expanding their green infrastructure to help reduce the stormwater that their systems have to deal with. “Traditionally in this industry, we use gray infrastructure — underground pipes and pumps and basins and storage,” which are expensive to maintain and replace, Nash says. “So we’re looking to try to use new technologies that mimic how natural systems absorb rainwater.”


When rain falls on a forest, most of the water goes into the ground or is absorbed by plants, but in areas with more impervious surfaces, very little of the water gets absorbed — the rest goes into storm drains, Nash explains. Green infrastructure projects, like rain gardens and converting impervious surfaces to pervious ones, limit the water that goes into the drains.


“The big costs of the gray infrastructure aren’t nearly as high in green infrastructure,” Nash says, adding, “Rain gardens are beautiful.” Oakland County is starting a program to help communities install green infrastructure projects.


How to prepare


“We’re hoping, based on projections, that 2020 is going to kind of be the peak of this, and it’s going to go down from there,” Lewis says.


Lewis advises residents to make sure they understand their flood risk and take protective measures. “The biggest challenge for us is distributing information as widely as possible to residents and businesses in the community at large on the actions that they can take to prepare for flooding,” such as making sure their flood insurance is up to date, he says.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website provides flood maps searchable by address.


Bryson stresses the importance of having a plan. “In fact, I’d have a plan A, B, and C,” he says, adding that Clay Township has been educating residents on how FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Plan works and how people with flood insurance can take advantage of the benefits it offers for flood mitigation.


Nash adds that separate from flood insurance, people can get their basements insured, as an addition to their property insurance.


For people with basements, Lewis advises moving valuables up to higher levels and making sure that no electrical appliances, like space heaters, are plugged in, to avoid electrical hazards.


“When high water levels come, they tend to inundate properties quickly,” he says. “So they may not have time to recover some of those valuables if they don’t get to it ahead of time.”


Outdoors, residents should tie down property like grills that can become floating hazards or get washed away.


Also, Bryson advises: “Watch out for your neighbors. Sometimes you’ll have an elderly neighbor who doesn’t have the resources” to deal with imminent flooding.


In areas that have combined sewer systems, people can help avoid overloading the system by not using large amounts of household water when it’s raining, Nash suggests.


Walker points out that “temporary flood protection is just that — it’s temporary.” So if sandbags and poly sheeting have been in place for a year, exposed to sun and snow, they should be checked to make sure they’re still doing their job, she says.


For waterfront residents, Walker recommends the booklet “Living on the Coast: Protecting Investments in Shore Property on the Great Lakes.” The Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District is the forecasting authority for monthly lake levels, which can be accessed through its Great Lakes High Water site.


Residents interested in incorporating green infrastructure on their property can get resources from the Clinton River Watershed Council, Friends of the Rouge, and master gardener programs, Nash says.

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